Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Taboo in Invisible Man

In the Invisible Man, what is the real reason behind the series of unfortunate events the narrator is faced with? Is it because he is an awful person and deserves it? Does he face failure because he is not capable enough to achieve his greatest wishes and desires? After reading the Invisible Man, I would have to say it is neither of the aforementioned. I will have to argue that this all comes down to the bad luck the narrator has that originates from his grandfather. The narrator’s grandfather leaves him as a walking taboo. You may be thinking; “How and why taboo?”, and the reasoning behind this is from the subtle mentioning in Invisible Man of Freud’s Totem and Taboo (Ellison 180). Along with many other specifics Ellison incorporates into his novel, this was one that really stuck out to me and felt it would give the carnal reading of the novel deeper and more fulfilling meanings.

While reading a novel, everyone will create their own interpretations of what they believe different things mean. They will make these interpretations solely on the internal relationships of the book, unless there is a knowledge of what and why the author has incorporated it into his work. Kermode’s analysis of truth and meaning argues that it is much more important to understand the meanings behind the novel than to just take it as a surface truth. Before understanding some history and the knowledge that was incorporated to create such a masterpiece of a novel, the reader is unknowledgeable of the meanings, and without a doubt an outsider to the novel. Understanding some of Freud’s Totem and Taboo is key to comprehending some of the significance in Invisible Man. This will then ultimately cause the reader to work their way to becoming more of an insider to the novel, although, no one but the author will ever be completely on the inside of the novel. “Outsiders see but do not perceive. Insiders read and perceive, but always in a different sense” (Kermode 144).

With my feelings on taboo being the primary source of the narrator’s problems, a quick explanation of what taboo means is needed. Taboo is “‘sacred’, ‘consecrated’ and on the other ‘uncanny’, ‘dangerous’, ‘forbidden’, ‘unclean’… Thus taboo has about it a sense of something unapproachable, and it is principally expressed in prohibitions and restrictions” (Freud 21). There are taboos towards the protection of important persons, safeguarding the weak against the powerful, coming in contact with a corpse, eating certain foods, guarding initiation against interference, etc (Freud 23). As well as the definition given, an extremely important characteristic of taboo is that; if you violate a taboo, then you, the violator, become taboo yourself, which means no one should come in contact with you as well (Freud 32). With the punishment of the violator becoming a taboo, the worse of the two evils is that the original taboo will take vengeance on the violator (Freud 23). This whole description of taboo goes hand in hand with the narrator of Invisible Man. With taboo not being a modern term of today’s language, you may be wandering why this is even a relevant idea. There are modern-day psychological aspects of taboo that leave it as a relevant issue in the novel in which we will touch upon later.

Totem and Taboo first showed up in the novel during chapter nine when the narrator had an interview with young Emerson. To me, this was the chapter that really gave the narrator a reality check, and where he realized no matter how hard he tries or how much he may deserve better, he is going to have the curse of the taboo of his deceased grandfather following him. As it was mentioned before, everyone has their own interpretations of how and why something was incorporated the way it was. According to Douglas Steward, a member of Johns Hopkins University, Totem and Taboo was incorporated in the novel to shed light on sexual preferences, especially homosexuality. That the
“novel Invisible Man makes with the sorts of theoretical concerns that have preoccupied much queer theory: questions of political speech and agency, of gender’s articulation with and against sexuality, and of the cultural cross-hatching of sexuality with other axes of identification, notably race” (Steward 521).
While he mainly argues about sexual desires relating to young Emerson and the blonde girl at the Battle Royal, he also recognizes that Ellison incorporates race as a major reason for “American hierarchical psychosis”, in which I can make both the sexual issues and race relate to my theory of taboo and neuroses (Steward 523). A part of Stewards interpretation includes that young Emerson is a homosexual (Steward 525). I can see this, and by young Emerson being a homosexual, this can mean he is also a taboo. During mid-century America, homosexuality was not an accepted idea, and was seen by many as being very disturbing. With this being said, by the narrator speaking with young Emerson who is an uncanny, forbidden kind of a person, this is also a taboo. So you can see that it is helpful to view what your interpreting with an interpretation of another individual because it will potentially help to strengthen your thoughts. I would have missed the subtle hints that young Emerson is a homosexual if it weren’t for Steward, which would have also caused me to miss another taboo that faced the narrator. By having multiple viewpoints of one subject it opens the horizon as to where the novel as a whole is supposed to take you.

Going back to what I believe to be the main issue here is simply that the narrator encounters taboo after taboo that causes him to endure the utmost worst luck. The original taboo started with his grandfather. By the narrator being present in the room while his grandfather was on his death bed and giving his last words was the first taboo and continues throughout the entirety of the novel (Ellison 16). Knowing that being near the dead is a taboo we should know the severity of what this really means to the violator.
“Death is commonly regarded as the gravest of all misfortunes; hence the dead are believed to be exceedingly dissatisfied with their fate. According to primitive ideas a person only dies if he is killed-by magic if not by force- and such a death naturally tends to make the soul revengeful and ill tempered” (Freud 69).

This is evident with his grandfather. The narrator is constantly thinking of his grandfather throughout the novel and especially when he is brutally experiencing his bad luck. At first, the dead soul is meant to be seen as a revengeful demon until the violator is completely out of mourning, then once the violator is no longer mourning he can then look to the deceased as an ancestor for guidance (Freud 76). This is perfectly shown when the narrator’s dead grandfather appears in a dream in which the grandfather is laughing about his grandson reading a note that says “Keep this Nigger-Boy Running” (Ellison 33). This is a such an obvious part of the novel that shows the demonic grandfather haunting the narrator, in which, since the dead soul is so revengeful, that he possibly is even eager to try to kill the narrator (Freud 73). Before this curse of his grandfather, the narrator clearly was better off. He was a smart young man who had potential to do whatever he pleased with his life especially with the fact he was the valedictorian of his class. With his outstanding academic achievements, he was given a scholarship to attend college and was ready to start his successful life.

With his grandfather being the main source of his tabooed life, we can credit some more instances. Giving his speech after setting eyes upon the blonde girl and then giving a speech in a weakened state (Ellison 29). In the scene where the blonde is introduced “Psychically split, the narrator is unsure whether the woman is an object of sexual desire, a sexual threat, or a fellow victim. He thus desires ‘to caress her and destroy her’” (Steward 524). These thoughts from the narrator show his ambivalent attitude toward the girl, an extension of the definition of taboo meaning “a symptom of the ambivalence and a compromise between two conflicting impulses” (Freud 77).

Running into Trueblood, especially while he is supposed to be in care (but failed to do so) of Mr. Norton; one of the elites of the school (Ellison 51). By not being able to take care of this important person and letting him get sick is yet another taboo (Ellison 69).
“It is equally clear why it is that the violation of certain taboo prohibitions constitutes a social danger which must be punished or atoned for by all the members of the community if they are not all to suffer injury. If we replace the unconscious desires by conscious impulses we shall see that danger is a real one. It lies in the risk of imitation, which would quickly lead to the dissolution of the community. If the violation were not avenged by the other members they would become aware that they wanted to act in the same way as the transgressor” (Freud 39).
The narrator then is carrying such a high risk taboo on himself that he is kicked out of the school he is attending.

He then went on with having bad luck finding a job because of himself being a tabooed individual. Bledsoe’s letters of extreme caution causes employers to deny the narrator from the get-go, unwilling to offer him a job. The running into the homosexual young Emerson, which we have already talked about, helped add to the severity of his tabooed self. The narrator is then eventually in the public eye due to the brotherhood, a position in which he should not have been. He is desiring something that is more or less out of reach for him, tabooing the people of Harlem that he touches with his words. He then witnesses Clifton’s murder, carries around his Sambo doll (in which both of the actions are taboos) and then shouts his name plenty amount of times during his funeral procession which keeps up roaring Clifton’s wandering demon towards the narrator. Then eventually all of Harlem breaks out in riot since they are all tabooed; it’s a vicious cycle that is never ending in the case of the narrator. Another interesting point is about all of his discussions and thoughts on light and power. It is brought up many times in the novel and little do you know that connects with taboo as well. “‘Persons or things which are regarded as taboo may be compared to objects charged with electricity; they are the seat of a tremendous power which is transmissible by contact’” (Freud 24). The narrator has too many taboos following him that he just can’t end his horrendous luck, which then can lead to the conclusion he is a neurotic.

The word taboo basically coincides with the term emotional ambivalence in which we can see in the narrator. It also has many similarities to conscience and overall neuroses. An example of a neurotic action by the narrator is how he refuses at all cost to let anyone know his identity. He does not give any name for himself, for the fear that someone “would then be in possession of a portion of his personality” (Freud 66). Another instance of neuroses in the narrator is when he retreats underground and chooses to have no interaction with the real world: “The real world, which is avoided in this way by neurotics, is under the sway of human society and of the institutions collectively created by it. To turn away from reality is at the same time to withdraw from the community of man” (Freud 86).

Everyone has their own interpretations and that whatever is cared about enough could be continually interpreted and in many different ways to get a better understanding of the novel and the issues it presents. I have decided to take this novel and turn it into an issue of taboo and neuroses, although I know this is not the only importance of this Invisible Man. After some of the quick examples of taboo and neuroses found throughout the novel, I would have to say we are all just one step closer to becoming an insider of the fantastic novel, Invisible Man.
“If we want to think about narratives that mean more and other than they seem to say, and mean different things to different people, with a particularly sharp distinction drawn between those who are outside and those who are inside, we can hardly do better than consider the parables” (Kermode 23).


Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage, 1980. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo. London: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Kermode, Frank. The Genesis of Secrecy: on the Interpretation of Narrative. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1979. Print.

Steward, Douglas. "The Illusions of Phallic Agency: Invisible Man, Totem and Taboo, and the Santa Claus Suprise." Callaloo 26.2 (2003): 522-35. JSTOR. Web. 20 Apr. 2011. .

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